I was reading an article last week that said the Bay Area is one of the largest “post-Christian” communities in the United States, with the lowest worship/church attendance among the population. Granted, this is not isolated to Christian communities; other faith traditions are seeing declines as jobs and other things begin to take priority. On one hand, you cannot blame this community. While churches are fighting hard to be what they were, society has moved on to new realities and struggles. So you can understand why many millennials ask if the church is even relevant today.
Not many people would take that statement and attack it, speaking of the many ways in which the church is, in fact, relevant. But that would miss the point and further the divide, because the truth in that statement is not based on fact or even opinion. It expresses an emotion and a feeling, and therefore, it is true. The only way to address it is to stop and listen to what is going on in our world, and look for new ways to engage the world around us. This is not something that is easy or comfortable.
Every church can grow, but there is a sacrifice that needs to be given. That sacrifice is often what we want vs. what God wants from us. About three years ago, our session made this choice. It was a very difficult move to make, and upset some, but the call to follow allowed us to ask some really deep questions and look hard into our community.
Among the first things we did was letting go of what we know “to be right” and, more importantly, letting go of the power of the past. Things change, and change is hard, because what worked at one point in history rarely works the same way again, since all of the things that made it work the first time are often not in place for the next.
So by listening to the needs of those outside the church, we can take the knowledge of the past, but find new and creative ways to implement this to meet the needs of our community. It is like this: in the ’50s and ’60s, churches tended to grow because of the fellowship. Even in the growth of the evangelism movements in the ’70s and ’80s, the point of entry was not to seek faith as much as it was to join fellowship activities. You would invite someone to an event, and over time, they would come to church. While that still works, the bigger draw for folks now is spiritual development.
This is the issue that we have been focused on over the last three years as a session, and as a congregation: trying to distinguish what we want from what God wants from us. How do we make sure that we are focused on developing a deeper spiritual commitment among people in an overextended, burnt-out culture? This is one of the great difficulties in evangelism!
Reaching the emerging community we live in is something we are working on with Revive, and even during Sunday worship. We have to remember that the generation that is present in our culture cannot come back to church, because they were not part of it in the first place. This drastically changes the ways in which we approach and evangelize them, and it creates new struggles of overcoming the stereotypes so that we can reach this new population.
We must remember the community and their needs so we can be faithful to the message of Christ. Personally, the best ending of any book, movie, story, or song I have seen or will ever see is the ending of the Gospel according to Matthew. This calls the reader to task. The New Revised Standard Version reads: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
It does not sum up the gospel, but gives us a call to action. “GO. You heard the story, you know who I am, and now it is your job to do what you need to do to let others know of my story, knowing that it is I who will be working through you!” Thus, the responsibility of evangelism is a dual one, requiring action both on God’s part and ours. We have to go out and find ways to attract people to the message of God, and moreover, we have the responsibility to spread this message.
This Sunday, as we welcome four new members and have one baptism, we can continue to celebrate our embrace of the sacrifice of turning from what we want to what God wants from us.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen